Politics

Lock Them Up: The Hazard of Political Persecution in Trump's Second Time period

President Donald Trump wants his enemies locked up – that's what he says all the time.

He told Hillary Clinton that once he won, she would be "in jail". He wants other countries to investigate the Bidens. He said that John Kerry "should be prosecuted". He wants Adam Schiff "to be questioned at the highest level about fraud and treason". John Bolton, he says, should be "in jail, money confiscated". James Comey should have been "years in prison". The list goes on. This isn't just empty political rhetoric – Trump says things similar to civil servants and gets angry when his demands are not met.

And so far they have not yet been carried out. However, the Justice Department under Attorney General Bill Barr is already increasingly responding to Trump's preferences in criminal matters involving Trump's friends. So the question is, if Trump wins in November, his investigation and prosecution speech will be more than just a speech.

I've spoken to more than a dozen former Justice Department officials about Trump getting a grip on an agency that has long prided itself on criminal independence.

"There is a fear that the attorney general will intervene in cases that benefit the presidential allies," said former US attorney Barbara McQuade. "And you can also use that power to harm the president's enemies."

Since Barr took office, he has tried in unusual ways to help Trump and his friends, from the findings of Special Adviser Robert Mueller to interfering with Roger Stone's conviction and attempting to prosecute Michael Flynn discard.

Attorney General William Barr takes the oath before testifying before a July 28th House Judicial Committee hearing. Chip Somodevilla / AFP / Getty Images

"In sensitive cases, procedures and codes of conduct have been systematically disregarded, many of which were introduced after Watergate," said Donald Ayer, assistant attorney general under George H.W. Bush (and was then replaced by Barr). "These things were torn apart by Bill Barr."

Of all the people Trump has said so many times that he wants to be prosecuted, none have been charged with anything. (Instead, Trump employees are repeatedly indicted, most recently Steve Bannon.) All of this can be seen as encouraging – that despite strong political pressure from above, the Justice Department is upholding standards and not making false accusations, pleading the President.

However, it is too easy to say that the division completely ignored Trump. Andrew McCabe was reportedly coming pretty close to the charges. Another investigation focused on Comey was released earlier this year. Senior law enforcement officials have put in place special procedures to review Conservative allegations against the Clintons and Bidens. And Barr has given other prosecutors he trusts special, politically charged assignments – notably John Durham's investigation into the handling of the Russia probe, an ongoing matter Barr often discusses publicly.

Despite what Barr has done, lines remain that he has not crossed. And this is increasingly trying Trump's patience. "Bill Barr may go under as the greatest attorney general in our country's history," the president said in a recent interview with Fox Business. “Or he can go down as an average guy. Lets see what happens."

When Trump took office there was a dam that prevented the president's corrupt or political pressure from penetrating and flooding the Justice Department. Since then, this dam has caused a great many leaks. And it's a real question whether it would completely bust in Trump's second term, with the president no longer having to limit himself to re-election.

Barr brought big changes

During its first two years as President of Trump, the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions largely retained its independence, earning Trump's anger.

The biggest mistake of Sessions in Trump's eyes was that he withdrew from involvement in the Russia investigation – standard criminal procedure to protect against conflicts of interest – and instead blamed Rod Rosenstein.

"There was a really powerful norm in the Justice Department that you never wanted to be seen as a political arm for the president personally," says Asha Rangappa, a former FBI agent who is now a lecturer at Yale. "And there was a feeling that if you violate it, there will be criticism, setbacks and consequences."

Sessions was a staunch Trump supporter, but felt he just had to reuse it – because if he didn't, he couldn't run the Justice Department effectively. He was restricted by the norms of the department.

Barr had no such qualms. He had previously been attorney general, and he partially took the job back because he thought the department needed a firmer hand at the helm. Again and again he is not afraid of criticism that he is acting politically to help the president or his friends.

"I think the message has come out loud and clear that if you do something to trespass the President and the Attorney General, your career will be jeopardized."

Barely a month after Barr was sworn in, a month before the report itself, Barr published his misleading account of Robert Mueller's findings. His Justice Department ruled that Trump's request for the Ukrainian president to investigate the Bidens was not worth investigating, and other federal investigations into Trumpworld appear to have stalled. Barr personally directed prosecutors to weaken their verdict on Roger Stone, and he is attempting to dismiss the lawsuit against Michael Flynn outright. He introduced a new rule that requires his personal approval for presidential investigations or campaigns. And he's tried to get loyalists into key U.S. legal positions like the Southern District of New York and the District of Columbia.

For all that, the Justice Department has not become a well-oiled machine that will carry out President Trump's commandments immediately at all times – far from it. Rather, the change was more subtle and insidious.

"I think the message has gotten loud and clear that if you do something to trespass the President and Attorney General, your career is at risk," said Matt Miller, who headed the Justice Department's public affairs office under Eric Holder.

Aaron Zelinsky, a prosecutor who worked on Müller's team, made this clear in Congress in June. Newly appointed acting US attorney for the District of Columbia, Tim Shea (a close associate of Barr), wanted to facilitate the prosecution's recommendation to convict Roger Stone. Zelinsky testified that a supervisor agreed that this was “unethical and wrong” but told him to join in because “this case wasn't the hill to die on” and that we “are losing our jobs could "if we weren't to tread the line."

All of this is worrying enough – but of course Trump wants more. Much more.

Avert your eyes

To gauge the likelihood that Trump could turn the Justice Department against his enemies in his second term, we need to understand why this has largely not happened so far.

By that point, law enforcement officials have typically addressed Trump's demands for prosecution, either openly ignoring them or hiring a U.S. attorney to look into the matter.

Ignoring Trump is easiest when his demands are completely absurd. Accept his call for Rep. Adam Schiff to be investigated for treason for Schiff rewriting Trump's comments during a call to the Ukrainian president during a congressional hearing. It bears no resemblance in the least to treason. Accordingly, there is no indication that the Justice Department took any action.

Trump can sometimes become fixated on a legally dubious claim. According to John Bolton's book The Room Where It Happened, Trump was “obsessed” with the idea of ​​prosecuting former Secretary of State John Kerry under the Logan Act (an obscure law that bans private individuals from conducting US foreign policy) for having Kerry's contacts with the Iran had foreign ministers. Trump would bring this idea up "at one meeting after another in the oval" to Barr "or anyone who would listen," writes Bolton. Trump's tweets about it continued this year and now he says he wants Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) to be investigated for this too.

The law was last applied in 1852; Some legal experts now regard it as a "dead letter" and question its constitutionality. However, the idea of ​​a modern investigation into the Logan Act is not entirely far-fetched. While investigators under the Obama administration were investigating Michael Flynn's links with Russia, they were investigating whether the law would apply to Flynn's talks with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition. The Logan Act was never the focus of their investigation, and they never came close to bringing charges. Still, there has recently been a precedent for looking at this. As far as we know, Barr's Justice Department did not.

There are reasons to doubt whether "just ignoring the president" is a solid long-term strategy. A second-term Trump might get tired of taking no for an answer. If he really wanted to do something, he could order the Justice Department directly to investigate and fire anyone who refuses to carry out the order. He might at some point find someone sycophantic enough to do it.

Also with the Logan Act, keep in mind that during the Obama administration, investigators investigated the law's application in relation to Flynn. Is it so implausible that Trump could find his own candidates in a second term who are ready to push the envelope against Kerry or other Democrats? That he could order them to do that?

Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, argued that the president had broad authority over the Department of Justice but could not use those powers on the sick. “The Justice Department is certainly under the control of the President. It is part of the executive, so it is perfectly legal for the president to dictate to the Justice Department how it should work or what priorities it should set, ”says Adler.

But he continues, "We have long insisted that the Justice Department be able to make judgments and law enforcement decisions based on traditional legal criteria and seek to achieve equal justice."

The president may have other ideas. Take James Comey's example. The sacked FBI director had written memos recording his interactions with President Trump. Inspector General Michael Horowitz criticized him for giving the unclassified content of a memo to a reporter, but that was not a criminal matter. However, in some of the other memos there was very little retrospectively classified information that Horowitz had alleged against Comey for improper handling. This was a very thin slice of a possible prosecution, and indeed the Justice Department quickly decided not to prosecute Comey.

Former FBI director James Comey is surrounded by reporters after testifying before the House Committees on Justice, Oversight and Government Reform on December 7, 2018. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Trump wasn't ready to leave things there. The Washington Post reported that after learning of the decision not to prosecute Comey, he "complained so loudly and swore so often in the Oval Office that some of his staff discussed it for days." A few months later, in December 2019, Trump accused Comey of "unlawful conduct" and suggested that he could spend "years in prison".

Finally, in January 2020, the New York Times reported that Comey had been re-investigated into "a year-long loss of classified information on a Russian intelligence document." The current state of this investigation, including whether it is responding to a request by the President, is unknown. But it is very clear that the president has not forgotten his desire to have Comey prosecuted.

Handpicked investigators

Another way the Justice Department has responded lately to political calls for an investigation – coming from the president or his allies in Congress – is to put someone in on the job.

Jeff Sessions started this trend in late 2017 when he announced that John Huber, the U.S. attorney for Utah, was reviewing a Clinton Foundation investigation and other Clinton-related matters.

This particular effort, aimed at Trump's 2016 opponents, worried some. In practice, however, it was clearly not the Get Hoffa cadre (which Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy assembled to defeat union leader Jimmy Hoffa as much as they could). The Washington Post reported this January that Huber's review "effectively ended" and that officials "said they never expected the effort to produce much of anything". In retrospect, this particular task seems primarily to be aimed at appeasing Conservative grievances rather than locking up Clinton.

A second-term Trump might get tired of taking no for an answer

However, the exercise of special duties continued under Barr. Barr hired US attorney for Connecticut, John Durham, to investigate the origins of the Russia investigation. He had John Bash, a US attorney for the western district of Texas, investigate the use of "unmasking" by Obama officials. And Scott Brady, US attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, was given the task of investigating information Rudy Giuliani had gathered about the Bidens and the Ukraine.

This is a process that, if approached with bad faith, can be very open to abuse. Are these US attorneys chosen for their professionalism or because Barr thinks they are politically sympathetic?

To cite an example involving one of the president's friends, Barr asked Jeff Jensen, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, to review the case against Michael Flynn more than two years after Flynn pleaded guilty, Lied to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. In fact, the Justice Department soon decided to withdraw Flynn's case, claiming Jensen had found new information that deserves the move. (The judge overseeing the case, Emmet Sullivan, is deeply skeptical of these allegations and has not yet allowed Flynn's case to be dismissed as the matter is under trial.)

The bigger point is, Jensen couldn't have been unconscious of what Trump was hoping for – one reason to get Flynn off the hook. He delivered.

In contrast, look at what happened to Huber, the US attorney who found no new information on Clinton to warrant action. President Trump publicly attacked him for this alleged failure and tweeted that Huber “did absolutely NOTHING. He was a garbage disposal unit for important documents and typed, typed, typed, just dragged them along and ran out of time. "

Again, this was an unmistakable message to prosecutors who receive such high-profile assignments – the president can and will attack them if they don't deliver what he wants.

Throwing clouds

One check against totally unfounded allegations, however, is that they almost certainly failed to stand up in court. If you bring a very high profile suitcase, you will be ashamed in a very high profile way if it falls apart. And already, as CNN's Katelyn Polantz and Kara Scannell have argued, the judges are showing more skepticism about the Trump Justice Department's representations on these matters.

"You can already tell by the way the courts are reacting to Justice Department positions," said Mary McCord, who served as assistant attorney general for national security in the late Obama and early Trump administrations. “That built-in credibility and the trust the department had in the judges is waning. Not only are they willing to accept at face value that their representations are completely correct and accurate, and not the product of political pressure. "

All of this is why Rangappa is skeptical that the direct pursuit of Trump's enemies "is where the danger is". Trump's Justice Department "cannot produce evidence and prosecute someone in court because defense lawyers would tear this apart and expose it," she says.

But there is another danger, some of which has already manifested itself. Even if an investigation ends without charge, its very existence – if it leaks – can hang over someone, frighten them, and have political implications.

Trump understands this dynamic very well. The email investigation was on Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign and the Russia investigation on President Trump. Indeed, Trump told James Comey that it was a "cloud" hanging over his presidency and asked the FBI director at the time "what he could do to raise the cloud," according to Comey's memo.

President Trump speaks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a meeting in New York on September 25, 2019. Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

More recently, Trump stopped military aid to Ukraine in an attempt to get that country to investigate energy company Burisma and the Bidens (a move that, once discovered, led to Trump's impeachment). But Trump didn't want just an investigation. He insisted that the Ukrainian president make the investigation public, according to his aides. That means: he wanted to put a cloud over Joe Biden's presidential campaign with the threatening phrase "is under investigation".

"Politically, I think it is to their advantage not to bring charges," says Rangappa. "What's good for them is an ongoing sense of crime and a feeling that these criminals are still at large and that it is the Democrats who are doing it."

The best-known example of this is Barr's most unusual handling of the Durham inquiry. Shortly after Müller finished his work, Barr asked Durham to investigate whether there had been any wrongdoing when the Russia probe was opened. At some point in the months that followed, Durham's investigation became a criminal investigation and its scope expanded.

We have no idea what Durham found; His only charge so far is an FBI attorney whose wrongdoing (changing an email) was exposed by the Inspector General last year. The Durham investigation is ongoing. This is why it is so strange that Barr has repeatedly made public comments, often on Fox hosts, always with the gist that he believes the Russia investigation was deeply corrupt and fraught with wrongdoing.

"No contemporary attorney general like Barr in the Durham Inquiry has made such an expanded, opinionated, unsupported and harmful public comment on an ongoing investigation that is at least in part a criminal investigation," said Jack Goldsmith and Nathaniel Sobel recently, when he checked what we know about the Durham probe.

"In my day, when something was before the grand jury or an investigation was pending, you didn't talk about it," says Stuart Gerson, who worked under George H.W. Bush and served as acting attorney general in the early Clinton administration. "And if there was no charge, you never said a word about it again."

But if it's just about throwing a cloud over someone – or helping the president politically – instead of winning in court, you could take a different approach.

Gray areas

In fact, of course, it is more difficult to bring charges. It's hard to imagine that the US federal attorneys are so far away these days that they would indulge one of the president's political enemies with a whole bunch of charges. "We're not yet in a banana republic where the Justice Department will fabricate evidence and hold a show trial and get people into a football stadium, thank God," says Rangappa.

Instead, they need something to work with. Conservative activists, media and politicians have become very adept at finding possible things – creating unproven scandals that they then demand investigation.

"It is vital that what the Justice Department does is legitimized."

For example, anything to do with money in which the political system is flooded can scream out scandal – like at the Clinton Foundation or at Hunter Biden's work in Ukraine. It's not illegal to raise money for charity or make big bucks to sit on the board of directors of a foreign corporation, but in both cases Conservatives claimed, quid pro quo that doesn't really seem to exist: Uranium One for Clinton and the layoff of the Ukrainian Prosecutor General for Biden.

In addition, the law can be a malleable thing. Famous classification laws could likely put many government employees at risk if actually followed. Questions can lead to incorrect statements.

Of course, if an enemy of Trump's really broken the law and there is evidence of it, they could deserve prosecution. The problem is that Trump and Barr's behavior casts deep doubts as to whether such an assessment would actually be fair at the DOJ – or whether it would instead be aimed at pleasing the president.

"It is vital that what the Justice Department does is legitimate," says Matt Axelrod, who served 13 years as a Miami federal attorney and then served in the Justice Department under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. “The entire basis for convicting crimes and imprisoning people must be based on the law. Leaning on politics would be abhorrent to the rule of law. "

But the law can be malleable, and there are often gray areas, especially in politics.

For example, imagine a situation where there is indeed a violation – but it's just not the type of matter the federal government would normally bring up. Perhaps the offense isn't that serious, the law is rarely enforced. or there are weaknesses in the evidence.

If a person involved in something like this is an enemy of Donald Trump, prosecutors may have an added incentive to pursue a case when they normally wouldn't.

This is what happened to Andrew McCabe, the former FBI deputy director. "It was an extended insane nightmare in which apparently, as far as we know, they came very close to indictment," said Michael Bromwich, McCabe's attorney and former Justice Department inspector general.

Trump came into office and distrusted McCabe over reports that a Clinton ally, D-VA Governor Terry McAuliffe, helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for McCabe's wife as she ran for the Senate. This suspicion intensified as the Russia investigation intensified and Trump viewed McCabe as an ally of the Comey. He accused McCabe of using his FBI position on political grounds to help Hillary Clinton (allegations internal investigators found unfounded).

However, McCabe also got embroiled in a leak investigation the gist of which was that when he felt his reputation was wrongly disgraced, he leaked an anecdote that made him look good. (His defense attorneys point out that he was empowered to provide information to the press, arguing that he was protecting the FBI's reputation, not just his own.)

In the anecdote, McCabe was portrayed as an attorney for an investigation by the Clinton Foundation despite pressure from the Obama Justice Department's senior judicial authorities. This disclosure of internal considerations regarding an investigation into a presidential candidate for 2016 came shortly before this election. And when investigators asked him about it months later, McCabe initially claimed ignorance. The Inspector General concluded that McCabe was not open enough and he was fired.

Trump's grudge against McCabe had nothing to do with the leak, which he wasn't involved in at all (and which, if anything, hurt Clinton). But he continued to attack and ridicule McCabe publicly, even after McCabe was released. Meanwhile, the District of Columbia Attorney's Office began investigating whether McCabe had made false statements to internal investigators. By September 2019, judicial officials had declined to appeal his attorneys, signaling that his indictment was imminent.

All of this set off alarm bells for Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare. "Criminal dispositions over false statements in internal investigations are exceptionally rare," he wrote. “Without a gross aggravating factor, I find it difficult to think of other examples. False statements in the workplace are usually dealt with with internal disciplinary measures, not criminal charges. Wittes wrote that his aim was "not to suggest that McCabe did nothing wrong," but to argue that prosecution of such a matter was highly unusual.

"It was very clear to us that they were trying to take action against him where there was no case and that he was selected for exceptionally harsh, politically motivated treatment," said Bromwich. "We had long heard that there was enormous political pressure on this office."

Katie Benner and Adam Goldman of the New York Times reported that the case's two chief attorneys "believed they could not convict a jury," McCabe and "concerned about the occurrence of vengeful prosecution" – so one resigned the case and the other left government completely. Two other prosecutors pushed forward and convened a large jury.

But then nothing happened – the expected indictment did not materialize. Rumors circulated that the grand jury voted against the charges (which would be extremely unusual), but this has never been officially confirmed. Another possibility is that prosecutors foresaw defeat and backed off. After months of radio silence and pressure from a judge overseeing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit on the matter, law enforcement officials announced in February that McCabe's team would not be charged.

As far as we know, McCabe came closest to Trump's goal of actually being charged. He escaped, but it wasn't guaranteed to be. And without the judge pressuring the prosecutor to make a decision, the cloud could still be hanging over McCabe. Or another grand jury or prosecutor might have achieved a different result. (Barr replaced the U.S. attorney who oversaw him with his loyalist Tim Shea as this drama came to an end.)

Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe (second from left), Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and National Intelligence Director Dan Coats testify during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on June 7, 2017. Alex Brandon / AP

Another important aspect is that there was a gray area here. McCabe wasn't the perfect victim – he really was behind an inappropriate, if not criminal and non-partisan, disclosure to the press near the election. Trumps Feinde werden nicht immer Heilige sein, aber sie verdienen nach dem Gesetz die gleiche Gerechtigkeit und nicht die unfaire Behandlung aufgrund ihrer politischen Ansichten. Aber gute Anwälte können Grauzonen und Unklarheiten nutzen, um den Fall ihrer Mandanten voranzutreiben, wie Barr es so oft für Trump getan hat.

Schlechte Anreize

Um vieles miteinander zu verbinden, haben Trump und Barr die Norm gegen politische Einmischung in Strafsachen so herabgesetzt, dass im Justizministerium jetzt ein ernstes Anreizproblem besteht, das sich dramatisch verschlechtern wird, wenn Trump eine zweite Amtszeit gewinnt.

Karrierebeamte werden dem ausgesetzt sein, was Zelinsky beschrieben hat – dem Druck, entweder in politisch kontroversen Fällen mit der Flut zu gehen oder ihre Arbeit zu gefährden. Und diejenigen, die ihre Karriere in der Abteilung vorantreiben möchten, sind sich dieses Drucks sehr bewusst.

"Menschen mit einer Ausrichtung von der Mitte rechts können in einigen Fällen im Grunde genommen würfeln", sagte mir Ayer, der ehemalige stellvertretende Generalstaatsanwalt. "Sie wissen vielleicht, dass das, worum sie gebeten werden, wirklich nicht richtig ist, aber sie wissen auch, dass sie, um Erfolg zu haben, der Autoritätsperson, der sie antworten, gefallen müssen, die für einige von ihnen Bill Barr ist."

Obwohl Trump gesetzlich wenig erreicht hat, wird er in der Lage sein, die Fabrik zur Bestätigung von Richtern am Laufen zu halten, wenn die Republikaner am Senat festhalten. Und für einen ehrgeizigen republikanischen Anwalt sagte Ayer: "Der ultimative Messingring ist ein Richteramt."

Besonders ehrgeizige GOP-Anwälte sind sich wahrscheinlich bewusst, dass die Verfolgung von Trumps Feinden den Präsidenten begeistern und sie zu Helden in konservativen Medien machen würde. Der Trick wäre natürlich, einen Fall zu erstellen, der vor Gericht Bestand hat.

"Ich denke tatsächlich, dass der Schaden angerichtet ist, ob er wiedergewählt wird oder nicht"

Dann gibt es Trumps Anreize, wenn er diesen Herbst gewinnt. Es sei daran erinnert, dass alles, was wir bisher gesehen haben, von einem Trump stammt, der durch Wiederwahlberechnungen zurückgehalten wird.

Erinnern Sie sich daran, dass er am Tag nach der Halbzeit von 2018 schließlich Generalstaatsanwalt Jeff Sessions entlassen hat. Am Tag nach der Aussage von Robert Mueller im Kongress bat er den ukrainischen Präsidenten während eines Telefongesprächs um einen Gefallen. Vielleicht würde ihn die Angst vor einer historisch beispiellosen zweiten Amtsenthebung etwas einschränken, aber er hat bereits erfahren, dass er nicht entfernt werden kann, solange er die Unterstützung von 34 Senatoren aufrechterhalten kann.

Eine Trump-Wiederwahl würde ihn innerhalb der Republikanischen Partei noch mächtiger machen. Theoretisch wird er eine lahme Ente sein – aber solange er bei den republikanischen Wählern weit verbreitet ist, wird der Erfolg in der GOP weiterhin davon abhängen, Trumps Gunst aufrechtzuerhalten und ihn zu verteidigen. Insgesamt gibt es kaum Anhaltspunkte dafür, dass er gezüchtigt wird, und viele Anhaltspunkte dafür, dass er noch weiter gehen wird.

Es ist nicht nur Trump

Während die meisten der ehemaligen DOJ-Beamten, die ich interviewt habe, zutiefst beunruhigt waren über das, was mit der Abteilung passiert ist, zeigten sich die meisten optimistisch, dass diese Trends schnell umgekehrt werden könnten, wenn Trump besiegt würde.

Die pessimistischste Person, die ich interviewt habe, war Matt Miller, der ehemalige Chef für öffentliche Angelegenheiten unter Holder. "Ich denke tatsächlich, dass der Schaden angerichtet ist, ob er wiedergewählt wird oder nicht", sagte Miller.

Als Miller die Dinge diagnostizierte, bestand das Problem nicht nur darin, dass Trump die Justizverwaltung politisieren wollte und dass Barr bereit war, ihm zu helfen. Der noch besorgniserregendere Trend war, dass ein Großteil der Republikanischen Partei – von Mitgliedern des Kongresses über konservative Medienkommentatoren bis hin zu den Wählern, die Teil seiner Basis waren – entweder Trump verteidigte oder ihn dazu drängte, weiter zu gehen.

I spoke to Miller shortly after the congressional hearing at which Aaron Zelinsky testified about Barr’s interference in Roger Stone’s sentencing — and what he saw from the Republican side troubled him. Whistleblowers had made accusations of misconduct, he said, and they “were treated as combatants, as instruments of the Democratic Party that were there to get Donald Trump and Bill Barr.”

Things weren’t always this way. Back in May 2017, when Trump fired Comey, there was widespread hesitancy among the congressional GOP to defend the firing. But gradually, Trump fought back against the Mueller probe, constructing his alternative narrative that the real crimes were on the “other side.”

Republican politicians have realized that they wouldn’t be struck down if they defended potentially corrupt behavior by Trump. Indeed, for many of them, quite the opposite happens. Those who most vocally defend Trump from accusations of scandal become stars in the party — and would often be rewarded with top jobs from Trump himself, like Chief of Staff Mark Meadows or Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe.

President Trump speaks on the first day of the Republican National Convention on August 24.Jessica Koscielniak/Getty Images

Lately, the Republican base has increasingly cheered on Trump’s efforts to interfere with the Justice Department, with Fox News commentators urging Trump to give clemency to Roger Stone and hyping the possibility that some former Obama officials will be indicted in the Durham investigation. They are, it’s quite clear, catering to their audience — voters who believe Trump’s conspiracy theories and claims of Democratic crimes, and who want him to move harder against them.

The next Democratic president, Miller predicted, would genuinely try to restore norms of the Justice Department’s independence, because the party truly believes in those norms. But Republicans have learned that they no longer do — and that lesson will be applied in future Republican presidencies.

“The post-Watergate norm that the department should operate independently of the White House when it comes to criminal matters, and without consideration to politics, has completely broken down in the Republican Party,” Miller said. “And I just don’t know why anyone thinks it would just snap back.”

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